Sidney Poitier, who broke racial barriers to become the first Black actor to win the Oscar for Best Actor and inspire a generation during the U.S. civil rights movement has died, officials said. He was 94.
Eugene Torchon-Newry, acting director-general of the Bahamian Foreign Ministry, confirmed his death on Friday.
In a single year, Poitier created a leading film legacy with three 1967 films at a time segregation ruled in large parts of the USA.
In Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner he played a black man with a white fiancée and in In the Heat of the Night he was Virgil Tibbs, a black police officer who confronts racism during a murder investigation. He also played a teacher in a tough London school that year in To Sir, With Love.
Poitier won his historically best actor Oscar for Lilies of the Field in 1963, as a handyman who helped German nuns build a chapel in the desert. Five years before that, Poitier was the first Black man to be nominated for a lead actor Oscar for his role in The Defiant Ones.
But stars did not protect Poitier from racism and condescension.
He had difficulty finding housing in Los Angeles, California, and was followed by the Ku Klux Klan when he visited Mississippi in 1964, not long after three civil rights workers were killed there. In interviews, journalists often ignored his work and instead asked him about race and current events.
His life ended in trial, but it began in adversity. Poitier was born prematurely, weighing only 3 pounds (1.4 kg), on February 20, 1927, in Miami, where his parents went to deliver tomatoes from their farm on the small Cat Island in the Bahamas.
He spent his early years on the island, and at the age of 12 he left school to help support the family. Three years later, he was sent to live with a brother in Miami, as his father was concerned that Nassau’s street life was having a bad impact.
With $ 3 in his pocket, Poitier traveled on a mail carrier under control.
The young actor got his first breather when he met the cast of the American Negro Theater. He was a teacher in Days of Our Youth and took over when the star, Harry Belafonte, who would also become a pioneering Black actor, fell ill.
Poitier chose his roles with care and buried the old Hollywood idea that black actors could only appear in derogatory contexts as shoemakers, train conductors, and servants.
“I love you, I respect you, I imitate you,” Denzel Washington, another Oscar winner, once told Poitier at a public ceremony.
In all, he has acted in more than 50 films and directed nine, starting in 1972 with Buck and the Preacher, in which he starred with Belafonte.
In 1992, Poitier received the Life Achievement Award from the American Film Institute, the most coveted honor after the Oscars.
In 2002, an honorary Oscar was given for “his remarkable achievements as an artist and as a human being”.
Poitier married actress Joanna Shimkus, his second wife, in the mid-1970s. He had six daughters with his two wives and wrote three books.
“If you apply reason and logic to this career of mine, you’re not going to get very far,” he told The Washington Post. “The journey was incredible from the beginning. So much of life, it seems to me, is determined by pure arbitrariness. ”
Poitier was knighted by Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II in 1974 and has served as the Bahamian ambassador to Japan and to UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural agency.
In 2009, Poitier was awarded the highest American civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, by then-President Barack Obama.
The 2014 Academy Awards Ceremony celebrated the 50th anniversary of Poitier’s historic Oscar and he was there to present the award for best director.